If you can’t see it, you can’t be it: Edtech that connects students to role models

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Sep 18, 2018

As the New York Times UpShot column recently highlighted, there is mounting evidence that students benefit from teachers who hail from a similar background and gender—and yet the teaching profession remains largely white and female. Solutions to this disconnect range from long-term efforts around diversifying teacher pipelines to more immediate interventions that surface and address implicit bias. There’s a third, less-talked-about option as well: investing in innovations that surround students with additional adults—experts, mentors, and advisors—with whom they can identify. These new connections could yield well-studied benefits of students having access to role models like them. And, in a small pocket of the edtech market, new tools are starting to do just that.

One of those tools is DreamWakers, a nonprofit that uses free and existing video technology to connect under-resourced classrooms across the U.S. with diverse career professionals. The goal of these video chats is to help students link what they’re learning in school to the real world and to expose traditionally underserved students to new career possibilities. Specifically, the organization aims to recruit role models from similar backgrounds to the students it serves. In the words of Co-Founder and CEO Monica Gray Logothetis: “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” I sat down with Monica to learn more.

Julia: DreamWakers brings mentors and experts into classrooms and schools where more than 50% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Has that mission shaped the sorts of professionals that you recruit?

Monica: Yes, we intentionally recruit speakers with whom we think our student audiences will be able to identify. Many of our speakers grew up in under-resourced families and communities, are first-generation immigrants, or were the first in their families to complete college. One of the teachers we work with, who teaches English at a middle school in which 98% of the students are Latino, shared the following feedback with us after a video chat in which we connected her students to Latina journalist Soledad O’Brien: “It’s incredibly powerful to bring professionals to the class that look like the students. Most teachers don’t look like their students. But kids need people that they can look up to that they have a connection with. I think the ability for my students to see people who look like them doing amazing things and being leaders in their communities helps my students see the way forward.”

Academic research has reached the same conclusions as this teacher; the 2016 State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce assessment reported that “the elementary and secondary educator workforce is overwhelmingly homogenous (82% white in public schools).” Teacher diversity really matters. A 2017 study found that when black children between third and fifth grade had a black teacher, boys in particular were much less likely to drop out of high school, and boys and girls were more likely to go to college. Simply put, bringing role models into the classroom can help alleviate the lack of diversity in the teacher workforce by exposing students to minority professionals working in meaningful careers.

One of my favorite DreamWakers stories is that of one of our veteran volunteers, Maurice “Moe” Owens. Moe grew up in a single-parent household in the Bronx before joining the Air Force and later becoming a White House staff member in the Obama administration. Moe hosted a number of virtual chats with students at KIPP Star Middle School in Harlem, New York, not far from where he grew up. Moe’s connection with the students was so genuine that he was invited to be the schools’ commencement speaker at the end of that school year. One of the students who was particularly moved by Moe’s story shared: “Moe knows the struggle we face on a daily basis with peer pressure, violence in our community, and household issues. He inspires me to not follow the crowd because I want to pursue my dreams like he did.”

Julia: Your model is premised on similarity breeding trust, inspiration, and connection. Do you ever connect speakers to classrooms with radically different viewpoints?

Monica: While many DreamWakers speakers share the background of the students they speak with, we also work with teachers to identify speakers who don’t share the background or beliefs as their audience when the teacher wants students to learn about different viewpoints. Recently, we connected U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (former chairperson of the Democratic National Committee) with a high school classroom in Carroll County, Virginia, a Republican district where 78% of voters voted for President Trump.

The video chat generated a dynamic bipartisan dialogue about school safety, gun control, veterans affairs, and other pressing political topics. Given that she represents the district in which Parkland, Florida, is located, Congresswoman Schultz has been very involved in gun control issues. In discussing her support of a semi-automatic gun ban, she talked about her meetings with citizens of all political viewpoints, including members of the National Rifle Association. In turn, students posed thoughtful questions about the Second Amendment and mental health policies. The Congresswoman and the students engaged in an authentic, two-way dialogue about gun control; a dialogue that would not have occurred without using video technology to connect the students in this community with such a senior political leader.

Julia: Like a number of organizations in this space, you rely on corporate sponsorship. But you often pair that with volunteer time from employees at those same companies. Is that proving to be a sustainable business model?  

Monica: Currently half of employers don’t believe that students are prepared for work, yet two-thirds of employers have little to no interactions with schools. We’re hopeful that our corporate sponsorship model will help narrow the divide between our nation’s classrooms and our workforce, and enable us to scale our impact over the next few years.

A couple of our most successful corporate partnerships have been with JetBlue, whose employees have given students tours of airplane hangars and close-up looks at new engine models, and L’Oreal, where speakers have given behind-the-scenes tours of chemistry labs where new products come to life. In one example, Balanda Atis, manager of L’Oreal’s Global Women of Color Lab, spoke from her office in Manhattan to a group of African American middle school girls in New Orleans. Atis, who is in charge of making sure the shades found in the L’Oréal foundation aisle match the diverse skin colors of women around the world, explained that her unique personal experience of struggling to find the perfect color makeup to match her skin tone led her to build and grow the Global Women of Color Lab–where she has helped to develop Beyoncé’s foundation!

After the video chat, the host teacher said that Atis “had every student hooked and excited” and that his class continued to discuss “how they can use Ms. Atis’ narrative and expertise to inspire them in and out of class.” Testimonials such as this one drive us to want to continue to grow our Corporate Partnership Program and empower more diverse and dynamic professionals to give back, while exposing students to the many different ways their unique passions and talents can lead to meaningful careers.

To learn more about the growing landscape of edtech tools working to expand student networks, visit whoyouknow.org

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.